Workers’ Mental Health Got Worse, Not Better in 2021

Last year was fraught with change. In January, many of us were hoping that the pandemic was over and things could get back to normal, but we realized that wasn’t going to happen any time soon. Even with the arrival of the COVID-19 vaccine, the world was introduced to new variants, new challenges and new dilemmas.

Workers were particularly affected in 2021. Vaccine mandates sparked heated debates, companies wrestled with keeping staff remote or bringing them back into the office, and the Great Resignation saw more people than ever leaving their jobs over long hours, low pay and poor management. And throughout it all, our mental health got worse, not better.

Despite the pandemic advancing conversations about mental health in the workplace, it seems that this hasn’t translated into positive, long-term outcomes. Here’s what you need to know.

An Alarming Trend

Studies are showing the highest levels of anxiety, depression and other mental health problems since the start of the pandemic. Mental Health America (MHA), a leading non-profit dedicated to promoting mental wellness, has published a State of Mental Health in America report confirming that things have continued to worsen. Furthermore, it seems that policymakers, employers and health care providers are ill-equipped to help.

The 2021 report indicates an increasing prevalence of mental illness among children and adults, as well as higher rates of substance abuse and suicidal thoughts. A survey by The Recovery Village revealed similar findings among workers, who experienced a significant decline in mental health and wellness compared to previous years.

Some key points from the collected data include:

  • Nearly 50 million Americans are living with a mental health disorder
  • Almost a quarter of adults (24.7%) report an unmet need for treatment, a number that hasn’t declined in over a decade
  • 87% of workers experienced mental health symptoms, up from 74% at the beginning of the year
  • The most reported symptoms were anxiety, stress, depression, loneliness, trouble sleeping and anger or agitation
  • Despite a majority of respondents claiming their employers offered support for mental illness, only 58% utilized the provided resources

When you take a step back and look at the bigger picture, these results suggest that the heightened focus on mental illness during the pandemic didn’t have the impact we thought it would. Instead, it seems that efforts by employers and mental health providers to increase the quality, accessibility and affordability of care weren’t enough to produce real, lasting improvements for most adults, and workers are feeling the strain.

A Bridge Too Short

On the surface, it looks like employers have made great strides in addressing the mental health needs of their staff. The Recovery Village survey found that 62% of respondents were offered mental health resources at work, with an overwhelming majority knowing how to access them (91%) and feeling comfortable doing so (88%). Despite this, barely more than half actually did.

This could be because the underlying culture hasn’t changed. Simply put, it’s not enough for employers to offer the latest therapy apps or use buzzwords like “wellness,” “mindfulness,” and “mental health awareness.” Even providing initiatives such as four-day workweeks, counseling or mental health days fall short when workers still feel stigmatized for using them. As a result, people continue to be affected by issues like depression, stress and burnout, and they’re leaving their jobs because of it.

Some ongoing causes of poor mental health in the workplace are direct and tangible. Long hours, stressful environments, low pay and no work-life balance, for example. Others are more subjective, like feeling disconnected from your boss or having a low sense of support. Younger and underrepresented workers are often most affected, but mental health challenges have become the norm for employees at all organizational levels.

Barriers to Getting Help

Even though it’s become clear that mental health affects each of us, there are still significant barriers preventing workers from getting the help they need, including poor communication, limited awareness of the available resources, and toxic corporate cultures. If employees feel that their leaders aren’t true advocates for mental wellness or equipped to create a supportive workplace, the stigma of asking for help will persist. To combat this, managers need to make sure mental health policies, practices and resources are put into place, prioritized, and clearly communicated.

Many people also don’t have an opportunity to address their mental health needs. Strict schedules, staying late at the office, and mandatory overtime have been normalized by employers, leaving no time for anything else. Poor work-life balance isn’t sustainable in the long run, contributing to issues like burnout and mental exhaustion. An effective solution is more flexibility in the workplace, where team members have more autonomy to make decisions that are right for them. Studies show that giving employees more control over their work environment goes a long way toward improving productivity and job satisfaction. It also ensures that they have the resources and bandwidth to maintain their mental wellness.

Finally, accessibility and high costs can prevent workers from getting help. Many insurance providers don’t provide adequate health care coverage, forcing members to pay out-of-pocket for treatment, travel long distances for appointments, or endure considerable wait times. Companies offering digital resources like teletherapy or mental health apps have helped bridge this gap, but employee assistance programs (EAPs) can also help improve access to mental health care and offset these concerns.

Taking Matters Into Your Own Hands

Having employers prioritize mental health care is critical in the workplace, but you can also take proactive steps to address your own needs and foster a supportive environment. Looking after your mental wellness and promoting a healthy work culture is an investment in your future that can boost your job performance, increase productivity and help you feel more fulfilled at work. Here’s what you can do to make this happen:

  • Be an advocate for your mental health
  • Encourage your boss to provide wellness benefits
  • Utilize employer-provided resources
  • Set clear work-life boundaries
  • Support your co-workers’ mental health needs
  • Share your experiences to reduce the stigma
  • Adopt behaviors that improve stress management
  • Take a break or time off, if you need to
  • If you’re a leader or a manager, be the change you want to see

These steps can empower you and your colleagues to ask for more support and increase awareness about the importance of mental health. They’ll also benefit your employer, helping to reduce issues like high turnover, burnout and absenteeism. Focusing on and prioritizing mental wellness in the workplace is a win-win.

Over the last couple of years, we’ve realized just how important mental health is to our general well-being. And with all the changes working professionals have endured, employers have started to catch on and expand their mental health offerings. While we’ve made great strides toward breaking the stigma of asking for help, there’s still room for improvement to ensure that our mental wellness won’t continue to decline in the coming years. Choice House in Boulder, Colorado, supports workers and their need for quality mental health care. We provide treatment programs for men struggling with issues like addiction, depression and other co-occurring disorders. To learn more about our recovery solutions, give us a call at 303-578-4975.

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